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Description

The film's prologue depicts the traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Twenty-six years later, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy merchant of noble blood in Jerusalem. Preceding the arrival of a new governor, Ben-Hur's childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a military Tribune, returns as the new commanding officer of the Roman garrison. At first Judah and Messala are happy to meet after years apart, but their differing political views separate them: Messala believes in the glory of Rome and worldly imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to his faith and the Jewish people. Messala asks Ben-Hur to caution his countrymen about protests, uprisings, or criticism of the Roman government. Judah counsels his countrymen against rebellion but refuses to disclose dissidents' names, and the two part in anger.

Judah's family welcomes two of their slaves who arrive with a caravan from Antioch: Simonides (Sam Jaffe), their loyal steward, and Simonides's daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who is preparing for an arranged marriage. Judah gives Esther her freedom as a wedding present, and the two realize they are attracted to each other.

During the welcoming parade for the new Roman governor, a tile falls from the roof of Ben-Hur's house and startles the governor's horse, which throws him off, nearly killing him. Although Messala knows that it was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Judah's mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), in an effort to intimidate the restive Jewish populace by punishing the family of a known friend. Ben-Hur swears to return and take revenge. En route to the sea, he is denied water when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth. He collapses in despair, but a then-unknown Jesus Christ gives him water and renews his will to survive.

After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur is assigned to the flagship of Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), tasked by the Emperor to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. The commander notices Ben-Hur's self-discipline and resolve, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer, but Ben-Hur declines, declaring that God will aid him.

As Arrius prepares the galley for battle, he orders the rowers chained but unaccountably orders 41 (Ben-Hur) to be left unchained. When the pirates attack the Romans, Arrius's galley is rammed and sunk, but Ben-Hur escapes and saves Arrius's life and, since Arrius believes the battle ended in defeat, also prevents him from committing suicide during their time afloat. Eventually, they are rescued by a Roman vessel and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet's victory, and in gratitude petitions Tiberius Julius Caesar (George Relph) to drop all charges against Judah, eventually adopting Judah as his son. With regained freedom and wealth, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer.

On his journey home to Judea, he happens to become acquainted with an Arab sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), along with Balthasar (Finlay Currie), who owns four magnificent white Arabian horses and wishes to have them trained for chariot racing. Discovering that Judah had been a winning charioteer in Rome, Ilderim introduces him to his "children" and requests that he drive his quadriga in the upcoming race before the new governor, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Ben-Hur accepts upon learning that Messala, considered the finest charioteer in Judea, will also compete in the race. (As Ben-Hur is leaving, Ilderim adds, "There is no law in the arena. Many are killed.")

Returning to Judea, Judah finds that Esther's arranged marriage did not occurr and that she is still in love with him. He visits Messala and demands that he free his mother and sister; Messala sends Drusus (Terence Longdon) to the fortress to look for them. When the soldiers enter the cell, they discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy, and they turn them out of the city. Esther learns of their condition when she finds the two women after nightfall in the Hur house's courtyard; and they beseech her to conceal their condition from Judah and allow him to remember them as they were. Esther tells Judah that his mother and sister have died in prison.

In the run-up to the chariot race, we see a wide-screen view of the imposing Circus building and nine four-horse chariots. (Ilderim warns Ben-Hur that Messala has a "beaked chariot," with blades on the hubs, designed to chew up opposing chariots that get too close. (The DVD subtitles read, in four languages, "Greek chariot"; the Portuguese subtitles also call the quadriga a biga.) In the violent and grueling chariot race, Messala removes several opponents by damaging their chariots with his beaked hubs, but in a collision he falls and is run over and trampled, sustaining severe injuries. After receiving the victor's laurel wreath from Pilate, Judah visits Messala in the infirmary, where surgeons are amputating both legs in a futile attempt to save his life. Before dying, Messala bitterly tells Judah that the race is not over: he can find his mother and sister in the "Valley of the Lepers." Judah leaves in anguish to search for his family, and he is devastated when he finds them in their diseased and disfigured condition.

The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and it is at this point that Jesus reappears. Esther witnesses the Sermon on the Mount and is moved by Christ's words. She tells Ben-Hur about it, but he remains bitter and will not be consoled. Learning that Tirzah is dying, they take her and Miriam to see Jesus, but they cannot get near him, as his trial has begun. (We don't hear the testimony, verdict, or sentence; but we see Pilate famously washing his hands.) Recognizing Jesus from his encounter with him as he was being taken to the galleys, Judah attempts to give him water during his march to Calvary, echoing Jesus' kindness to him, but he is shoved away by the guards.

Eventually, Judah witnesses the Crucifixion. Immediately after Christ's death, Miriam and Tirzah are healed by a miracle, as are Judah's heart and soul. He returns to his home and tells Esther that as he heard Jesus talk of forgiveness while on the cross, "I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The film, which had begun with the Magi visiting the infant Jesus, ends with the empty crosses of Calvary in the background and a shepherd and his flock (a prominent Christian symbol) in the foreground.

Film Info

(2013)
3 min 4 sec Duration
13,158 views
  • Posted: September 02, 2009
  • Director: William Wyler
  • Writer: Karl Tunberg
  • Studio: MGM
  • Release: November 18, 1959
  • Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet

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